Sunday, September 11, 2016


Reviewed by:
W.J. Hallock
NewTown’s latest CD, HARLAN ROAD comes across as first class in every way, shape and form.

They nailed this recording, and they should be proud of their efforts! When you bring five hot pickers into the studio, add a Producer with the stature of Barry Bales and bring a boatload of songs from seven different top song writers to the mix, you have a right to expect good results.

They also took all their tools and work ethic to Crossroads Studios, in Arden, NC and turned Scott Barnett and Van Atkins loose to catch all the action on their recording equipment. Good decisions all around, and my ears love just about every minute of this CD.

The current lineup of NEWTOWN is based around the voice and fiddle of Kati Penn (Williams) and the vocals and banjo of her husband, Jr Williams. The band’s inauguration was in 2009, and they have plenty of forward motion to show for their years of dedication to their sound. Kati describes it as “traditional bluegrass with a newgrass feel.”

Mandolin player Mitchell Cannon, bass player Travis Anderson and guitarist Hayes Griffin make this a formidable quintet.

It should be noted that their label, Mountain Home Music Company, has been a strong ally in their progress up the Bluegrass ladder of success. It seems to me that NewTown has brought together a musical and business team that has pushed this unit to the forefront of the Bluegrass world. They will be performing twice at the up-coming IBMA Convention in Raleigh, NC.

Two songs here blow me away! The very last song on the CD is called “Come Back to Me” and it was written by none other than Jon Weisberger and Jeremy Garrett. The vocals, especially when Jr. and Kati are singing together, make this a duet that shines. Emotion, passion and pure beauty jump out of the speakers, and they own this song!

On the solos, guitarist Hayes Griffin uses his new Wayne Henderson “Dream” guitar to play a twin guitar line, in what appears to be Drop D tuning, that sparkles and lights up the song. Kati then plays the second half of the solo beautifully on fiddle, but, here is my only question…… why wasn’t her fiddle solo doubled or tripled?  Hayes’ solo soars, and if the fiddle had been more pronounced, and strengthened like the guitar, it would have made for a huge leap in dynamics. The song is still dynamite, and my little peculiarity aside, it is the best song on the CD, in my humble opinion. Picking this song for inclusion was a stroke of genius!

My second favorite is “Hard Times,” by Tyler Childers.  Jr growls the superb lyrics to this story song as if he has been in the desperate shoes of the main character.  Jr caught just the right feeling and pulls all the genuine sadness and pain out of this minor key tune. It starts off, and ends, with a low rumble of the bowed upright bass of Travis Anderson, and the ominous sense of dread sets the stage for the other instruments to carry this composition into “great listening” territory. Bass man, Travis, powers this arrangement along masterfully, and I kept hitting re-play just to hear the “rumble.”

Tyler Childers must be a favorite writer of NewTown, because they recorded a total of four of his songs here. Definitely a case of strength in numbers, as not one of his songs has any weakness to it. The CD’s title song, “Harlan Road,” sung by Jr with more of his gravelly voice, is full of tight playing, strong harmonies and a great instrumental hook line in the arrangement.

“The Crows and the Jakes,” and “The Heart You’ve Been Tending” are Mr. Childers’ other songs presented here on “Harlan Road.” The band does justice to the richness of the songs, with nice three-part harmonies, quality playing by everyone and spot-on solos.  “The Heart You’ve Been Tending” is in ¾ time, and has a drive that can literally be felt by the listener. Turn it UP and see if you don’t feel this song in the seat of your pants. To take a waltz, speed it up, power it up and push the hot licks throttle makes for a distinct change in the persona of the CD.  Tyler and the band should be very glad they found each other! It ain’t broke, so don’t try to fix this cooperative…. use it, take advantage of this musical relationship and record more of Mr. Childers’ compositions.

The only original song by a band member is an instrumental written by guitarist Hayes Griffin called “The Feast of the Gryphon.” The song, its melody and chord pattern, is as exotic as the name, a Gryphon being a creature that is a cross between an eagle and a lion. Everyone throws their best licks into the push and pull of each other and come up with a great showcase tune. I’ll bet they get a great crowd response when doing this one live. Hayes’ new Wayne Henderson “dream” guitar shines through the mix with a richness and bite that is exactly what the song needs. Mitchell’s mandolin comes out as warm, fast and flashy. Jr’s banjo isn’t brash or twangy, rather a mellow dominance that holds the time and tempo like a metronome, even though his solos. Travis Anderson’s bass never varies in its solid position as the muscle of the band. I’ve always been a fiddle fanatic, and Kati has become one of my new favorite fiddlers! Her intonation, her tone and the dissonance that she can bring to a phrase are just plain cool. She also has a way of slippin’ and slidin’ her notes with a bluesy feel that I really like. The engineers, Scott and Van, got a super sound out of all the instruments, and there were no harshly recorded or missed accents that I could hear. Pros behind the recording console are a must. Nice job from the whole team on this tune! Listening on headphones brings out all the nuances of the arrangement and my old ears were able to hear all the defining elements of each solo.

“Drifter Blues,” by Charles James Cain is also a top favorite. The visual pictures that come to mind through the lyrics are very specific and poignant. What a video this would make! Jr sings his butt off on this one, and Kati’s harmony vocal is HOT!  The vocal tracks are probably the best of the entire CD. Travis’ bass lines on this one are also jazzy, driven and perfect for this cut, he propels this one like a V8 engine. Mitchell’s mando track, and Kati’s fiddle both have a rock and roll, funk attitude to them that give a greasy, slippery tinge to the event. Love the southern edge this song has, and the “newgrass” feel Kati referred to is present in spades.

The longest track of the CD, “Wildfire,” by Sarah Siskind, is also a unique song in this lineup of great songs. The verses are all in a minor key, and when the chorus’ comes in, it switches to a major key. Very special in the way they make the song bend and move with this variance in the chord structure. I love Kati’s voice on this one, and Hayes’ finger pickin’ on guitar is sweeeeeet. The mandolin and the bass move this one in a rhythmic cadence that is smooth, crisp and clean. Just how well this band works together really shows on this very well written song. More of Sarah’s songs should also be investigated for future recordings by NewTown.

NewTown should be congratulated for thinking and planning this CD out so well. The very first song, “All That I Can Take,” by Andy Thorn and John E. Buck, was a perfect choice to kick this off with a traditional up-tempo ear grabber. Then they went directly into a newer, bluesier feel that telegraphed the listener that this was NOT going to be your “usual” bluegrass recording. Song choices, surrounding themselves with top notch tech and production people and bringing all their many talents into the studio have made for a very well done project. Do YOU need to get this CD?  You bet…… and enjoy!!! 

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